Saturday, March 2, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | City of the Rising Sun (1998)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Lee Jung-jae, Lee Beom-soo, Han Go-eun, Park Ji-hoon, Lee Ki-yeol, Park Sung-woong

In the late 90s, with the great success of Beat, Kim would follow up quickly, just a year later, with another Jung Woo-sung starring vehicle, titled City of the Rising Sun. What makes this title unique, among many other things, is that Jung co-starred alongside Lee Jung-jae, which would be a bromance that would blossom beyond the screen and hold up well over the years, as Jung and Lee have been friends ever since, and the two would end up directing their own films just in the past few years. Needless to say, they have a chemistry like no other, which is one of this work's very best elements. The two are simply electrifying together and light up the screen from start to finish. The style that Kim had been building up over the previous two directorial efforts would reach maximum impact here. This concoction of machismo, a bumping soundtrack, and visuals to the max make up a film that is certainly style over substance, but the style is oh so magical, and I cannot help but be enraptured by it all.

Do-chul (Jung Woo-sung) is a boxer who is down on his luck. He has been defeated and finds himself getting sudden nosebleeds. His health has been impacted by repeated fighting and the subsequent beatings that follow. Still, he stays determined. Hong-ki (Lee Jung-jae) is a petty street hustler who finds himself indebted to a loan shark (Lee Beom-soo), and he happens upon Do-chul one day, who helps him out of a sticky situation. The two seem to be night and day from one another, yet there seems to be something magnetic between them, and quickly, they become best friends. For a brief moment, everything seems to be fine in the world, but trouble awaits them as it once had before. The plot is simple; there is a romantic element between Jung Woo-sung and Ha Go-eun, who plays Mimi, but get that noise outta here. This is about the bros and their worlds colliding. The very outdated term, "bros before hoes"... this is that movie. I cannot imagine another film where two dudes vibe this hard together. It's very in-your-face, just like the abrasively incredible visuals.

The aforementioned style here is just phenomenal. We get a lot of smooth slow-motion, stylish editing, intricate framing and montages, the music accompanying the sequences so perfectly. After seeing this film, you will never get 'Love Potion No. 9' out of your head. Every single frame oozes with confidence and as someone who is obsessed with the visual element of storytelling, I had a big grin on my face the entire time. With the re-release of both this and Beat headed back to theaters this month (Mar. '24), I can only hope a couple of remastered home video releases are in the pipeline. Rising Sun is the epitome of cool 90s visual overload, and it just works so well. The two silhouetted in front of the sunrise, the rain pelting down on Jung Woo-sung as he runs down the streets shadowboxing, Lee driving in his car beside him, cheering him on every step of the way, the fisheye lens as Jung leaps over the camera as the two are running away from trouble. If you want memorable sequences, then the entirety of this film is one. The argument "the style is the substance" is one to apply here. There isn't a ton going on with the narrative, but the lives within are presented in such a hyperactive way that you are forced to be pulled along for the ride, which is glorious.

Feeding into the style even more, beyond a visual standpoint, would be the fashion on display. Never has a film had such an element of the time that it is set in with what the characters are wearing. You have Jung's iconic opened button-up shirts, but then Lee is just a whole statement of his own. In every single scene, the guy has something totally bonkers on, and I am there for it. The fashion statements here rival that of Sam Lee's character in the 1997 classic, Made in Hong Kong. If you've seen that film, you'll get an idea of what outfitting treats await you. It is most certainly a product of the times, but that is one of the things that helps in favor of it all. It is such a time capsule, perfectly distilling and capturing the moment in time that the film was made in, that you are truly transported back to such a particular time and place. All around the world, people were just going for it, and South Korea made no exception either. If for some reason you absolutely hate the nineties, then keep away from this one, otherwise dive into all of the gaudy splendor intricately woven into the very fiber of this film's existence.

City of the Rising Sun is a film I enjoyed the first time I watched it, but this new viewing experience really helped cement its place for me as one of the finest Korean films of the 1990s. There is so much going on in this film, but it manages to all stay together in one cohesive experience. It is very chaotic in how it presents itself, but never becomes muddled or headache inducing. Director Kim Sung-soo went all out here, and it is very apparent that this film was an absolute labor of love. The leads are fantastic here, and what a great real-life relationship that would come from this film, that would, over the following decades since release bring even more great titles. It's the gift that keeps on giving. If you are a fan of East Asian cinema of the 1990s and have never seen City of the Rising Sun, you need to change that immediately. This one gets my absolute highest recommendation. What a classic!

Written by Josh Parmer

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